INTRODUCTION: DEFINING OVERLOAD
In part two of the series discussing the principles of programming, the principle of focus is overload. Overload will be defined as a stimulus of sufficient intensity, duration, and frequency as such that it forces an organism to adapt (Lorenz & Morrison, 2015). The stimulus must be within the adaptive threshold of the system and still on average greater than recent historical stimuli (Israetel, Hoffman & Smith, 2015). This means that each workout, with exception, must have higher training intensities or volume loads. Higher training intensities means that weights are increasing closer to or above percentage of one repetition max, while the training volume decreases or remains constant. Another way to present overload is through increasing training volumes, be it through sets or reps, while keeping intensities constant or increased.
Overload can be ignored or misunderstood if an incorrect approach is taken to training. Weightlifting is a sport with two competition lifts, the snatch and clean and jerk. These lifts require "...outstanding neuromuscular coordination, fine kinesthetic perception, agility and ability to perform accelerated and explosive movements in a specific line of technique with maximum accuracy” (Szabó, 2009). With those qualities the competition lifts must be manipulated in a well-thought out, periodized plan including many other exercises that do not have as much of a skill, speed, and precision component.
Overload in the Competition Lifts: Efficiency
The competition lifts comprise a given percentage of the front, back squat, and deadlift. Let's create an example of an extremely efficient lifter. This lifter has well-developed technique, is quite experienced in the sport, and can clean roughly 90+% of their front squat and snatch ~75% of their front squat. This is as efficient as they come. The upside is that the lifter is able to utilize most of their leg strength, but the down side is that the competition lifts will now create greater levels of fatigue because they are so close to the athlete's maximal strength levels. Someone that can snatch 150 kilos, but squats 320 kilos and deadlifts 340 kilos will not be nearly as fatigued from a high volume snatch workout than someone that snatches 150 kilos, but squats 200 kilos and deadlifts 215 kilos.
Overload in the Competition Lifts: Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced
Another consideration would be experience in the sport and with general strength training. There are two types of beginners: those inexperienced with both weightlifting and resistance training and those inexperienced with weightlifting, but have previously or currently resistance train (squat, bench, deadlift, press). The difference lies in absolute strength levels.
A rank beginner to both the sport of weightlifting and resistance training will receive much more of a stimulus from snatch and clean and jerk. This means that squatting and pressing will be of equal priority along with the competition lifts and must be in concert with the accessory movements as to not provide an excessive stimulus. A rank beginner with weightlifting, but not with the general strength movements must maintain the volumes of squat, press, and deadlift previously programmed as they take up the competition lifts. If too much volume is pulled from the slower lifts then there may be regression, which will not be beneficial.
Specificity and Overload
The previous article looked at the importance of specificity when competing in the sport of weightlifting. Without specificity of training any of the other programming principles can easily be misused. Imagine if a weightlifter's program called for only machine exercises, but appropriate adjustments were made to volume and intensity week-to-week. That approach is supplying an overload, but it lacks the specificity to provide sport-specific benefit.
Adhering to the principle of overload with the specificity of exercise selection, frequency and duration, and intensity of training all dialed in will produced a great return from training. A periodized plan requires different forms of overload depending on the phase of training, which determines the emphasis of adaptation.
Overload Within a Periodized Plan
Within the periodized plan there are distinct phases of training focused on developing particular attributes. A basic model will begin developing work capacity, which can be defined as the total amount of work you can perform, recover from, and adapt positively to (Nuckols, 2013). This is done through increases in volume of work accomplished over time (~4-6 weeks, repeated as needed). What would follow is a period focused on developing muscle mass. This is achieved through higher training volumes, a variety of exercises, long duration sets, and lower intensities.
After the improvements in body composition are made the emphasis would be shifted to improving neural capabilities, which directly impact strength. A few of the changes in neural capabilities include: increased rate coding (greater frequency at which motor units are stimulated), improved intermuscular and intramuscular coordination, and decreased antagonist coactivation (reduced opposition of contraction from the antagonist muscle group, i.e. hamstrings limited quad activation in a knee extension) (Nuckols, 2015; Schoenfeld, 2016). These neural adaptations are realized through increases in intensity and specificity of exercises, lower training volumes, and a decreased density of training (longer rest periods).
Lastly, before competition the athlete will go through a peaking phase. This phase focuses on developing the skill of the sport, so with weightlifting the skill is snatch and clean and jerk one repetition max. Typically a peak would have the least amount of variety in exercises, the heaviest weights, a greater frequency on the competition lifts, etc.
Exceptions to Overload: Light Sessions, Deloads, and Active Rest
Throughout most of the training year overload is a desired principle. There are of course circumstances which require decreases in training volumes and intensities, periods of intentional unloading. During the mesocycle, depending on experience level, overloading sessions are followed by lighter training days to help facilitate recovery. For example, in weightlifting heavy training sessions involving the competition lifts will be followed with the power versions. This decreases the stress placed on the legs, still allows for technical practice, but promotes recovery.
Not only are there sessions of unloading within the mesocycle, but after each training cycle deload weeks are used to decrease accumulate fatigue and create a more resiliant athlete capable of handling the next upcoming ~3-6 weeks of overloading training. A deload week can be implemented using either lower volumes or lower intensities and volumes. Practically this is removing half or two-thirds of the training volume. As far as adjusting intensity that differs more from athlete to athlete, but a general rule would have the training load halved the second half of the deload week.
Lastly, there are active rest phases. This unloading period occurs after a major competition or intense peaking phase. Active rest phases allow for healing of muscular and connective tissues, but also allow for restoration of mental health. Preventing burnout is imperative and periods of total removal from the sport will be of the utmost importance. A basic approach to this method is taking the first week after competition completely off and then coming in the second week and working below 50% of one rep max on any exercise. Try new movements, work in different movement planes, and have fun.
Just remember, all training sessions do not have to be overloading.
Here is an example of one training session the week before and then during a deload week:
WEEK 4/LAST WEEK OF MESOCYCLE - DAY 1
- Snatch Double
- 4x2 @ 88%
- Power Clean + Power Jerk
- 92% of best power for 4x2+1
- Front Squat
- 5x3 @ 90%
DELOAD WEEK - DAY 1
- Snatch Double
- Max double, then -10% for 1x2
- Power Clean + Power Jerk
- Max 2+1, then -10% for 1x2+1
- Front Squat
- 3 Rep Max, then -10% for 2x3
In the latter half of the training week the strength movements would be completed at 50% of their previously used intensity (i.e. 88% -> 44%) and the competition lifts may be maintained around the ~70% range.
Examples of Overload within a Program
So, to round out the article I would like to give practical expamples of what overload looks like within the context of a training mesocycle (middle-length cycle, ~3-6 weeks). The microcycles (short-length cycle, typically a week long) are progressed by weight on the bar with minimal adjustments to sets/reps:
Last Mesocycle - Week 1 -> Week 2 (1 month out)
"->" indicates progression from week 1 to week 2
Snatch 5x1 @ 85-87.5% -> 5x1 @ 87.5-90%
Clean and Jerk 5x1+1 @ 85-87.5% -> 5x1+1 @ 87.5-90%
Front Squat 3x3 @ 83% -> 3x3 @ 86%
Power Snatch 4x2 @ 80-85% -> 4x2 @ 85-87.5%
Power Clean and Jerk 4x2+1 @ 80-85% -> 4x2+1 @ 85-87.5%
Snatch Pulls 4x2 @ 90% -> 4x2 @ 95%
Snatch 4x2 @ 80-85% -> 4x2 @ 85-87.5%
Clean + Jerk 4x2 @ 80-85% -> 4x2 @ 85-87.5%
Front Squat 5x1 @ 90-92% -> 5x1 @ 93-95%
Snatch Heavy Single, then -10% for 3x1 -> Heavy Single, then -10% for 3x1
Clean and Jerk Heavy Single, then -10% for 3x1 -> Heavy Single, then -10% for 3x1
Clean Pulls 4x2 @ 90% -> 4x2 @ 95%
Power Snatch 5x1 @ 85-90% -> 5x1 @ 90-92.5%
Power Clean and Jerk 5x1 @ 85-90% -> 5x1 @ 90-92.5%
Front Squat 4x2 @ 88% -> 4x2 @ 91%
How Should you Overload?
How should you overload? Are you a beginner or advanced lifter? Beginners will be able to progress from workout-to-workout, increasing weights. Advanced lifters will need much more time, properly sequencing their training to hit PRs. This requires a plan, increasing volumes initially and then working towards greater intensities and specificity. If you are further out from a meet you may benefit more from increases in volume, which will build work capacity and allow you train with and recover from greater volumes down the road. If you are quickly approaching a meet then overloading intensity will provide the greatest return from investment. Usually a combination of the two will be required to progress. Increasing frequency is a means of increasing volume, while still being able to increase the weights in each lift, each week. The next article will look a bit further into the concepts of deloading, low stress training days/weeks, high stress training days/weeks, and how to optimize your progress through appropriate recovery.
Joshua is a strength coach and weightlifter located in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in Health and Human Kinetics and a minor in Psychology. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in Strength and Conditioning from East Tennessee State University. His interests are most consumed by human physiology and subsequently periodization, programming, recovery, and mindset.
Not only does Joshua have the education, but he’s been a competitive weightlifter for the last 3 years, training under some of the best coaches in Ohio. He has also coached many to the platform, including powerlifters, weightlifters, and recently, crossfitters. Besides directly impacting athletes through improved performance he continues to share his passion of strength through his writings, podcasts, and other social media platforms.
You can learn more about Joshua here purposedrivenperformance.com
Israetel, M., Hoffman, J., Smith, C. W. (2015). Scientific Principles of Strength Training. PDF
Lorenz, D., Morrison, S. (2015). Current Concepts in Periodization of Strength and Conditioning for the Sports Physical Therapist. Int J Sports Phy Ther. 10(6): 734-47.
Nuckols, G. (2013). How to Increase Work Capacity. Retrieved from https://www.strongerbyscience.com/increasing-work-capacity/
Nuckols, G. (2015). The Complete Strength Training Guide. Retrieved from https://www.strongerbyscience.com/the-complete-strength-training-guide/
Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Szabo, A.S. (2009). Some Questions of Biomechanical Character in Weightlifting. Sport SPA. 9(1): 59-64.